restricted access Reinventing a Sacred Past in Contemporary Afro-Brazilian Poetry: An Introduction
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Reinventing a Sacred Past in Contemporary Afro-Brazilian Poetry
An Introduction

It would be difficult for a contemporary reader not to feel deeply ambivalent toward the ideas that French sociologist Roger Bastide expresses in his groundbreaking 1943 essay “A Poesia Afro-Brasileira” [Afro-Brazilian Poetry]. On the one hand, one admires the author’s evident enthusiasm with regard to what he characterizes as the “deeply-moving beauty” 1 of Afro-Brazilian poetry and its persistent, albeit covert, relationship to religions of African origin. At the same time, however, one is troubled by Bastide’s apparent ethnocentrism when he makes the misguided series of assertions that white writers discovered African culture in Brazil, and that, for the most part, writers of African origin failed to address their African past in their works, or, if they did, it was after white writers and in unoriginal ways, “without adding anything new to what whites had already discovered.” 2 More than half a century has passed since the publication of Bastide’s essay, and, over the decades, there has been an increasingly more open discussion in Brazil of the systematic exclusion and marginalization of African-Brazilian writers from Brazilian literary culture, a phenomenon that mirrors the manner by which Brazil’s institutionalized racism perpetuates the myth of a “racial democracy.” Or, as José Carlos Limeira puts it in his poem “Reflexão” [Meditation]: “Não será que quando / se diz ‘democracia racial’ / na verdade se quer dizer / ‘hipocrisia social’?” [Isn’t it possible that when / people say “racial democracy” / what they really mean is / “social hypocrisy”?]. 3 In recent years, certain African-Brazilian poets such as Estevão Maya-Maya, Oliveira Silveira, Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, Ricardo Aleixo, Lepê Correia, and others have worked against the grain to publish books of poetry that attempt to reinvent a sacred past by means of direct references to Brazilianized religions of African origin, primarily in the Yoruban and Bantu traditions. This phenomenon in literature is a continuance of similar manifestations in other forms of aesthetic expression in Brazil such as popular music, sculpture, dance and, of course, prose fiction. 4 But it also simultaneously begins to countervail the presence of the traditional Christian symbolic system in 20th-century Brazilian poetry by, for example, Murilo Mendes and Jorge de Lima, especially in their joint collaboration Tempo e eternidade [Time and Eternity] (1934). I plan to analyze these Afro-Brazilian literary texts in conjunction with the cultural and political dynamics of the religious marketplace in contemporary Brazil, a country in which African-based religions such as candomblé and umbanda in Brazilian urban centers increasingly have acquired a universal appeal, attracting followers of all [End Page 69] ethnic groups, whereas, in isolated rural areas, especially in the state of Minas Gerais, the practice of Catholicism syncretized with Bantu traditions is an important, unifying feature of black communities. My point is not to engage in literary analysis that is overly subservient to sociological perspectives, but rather to use the vantage point of demographic studies to compare current religious practice in Brazil with new Afro-Brazilian poetry that engages in a thematic and structural dialogue with these practices.

In undertaking this study, I hope to avoid or at least be conscious of the shortcomings of two common tendencies. The first is the depoliticization of Afro-Brazilian religion. Thomas E. Skidmore, for example, comments on the political safeness of studying and preserving Afro-Brazilian culture. According to Skidmore, “it fits perfectly with the elite view that Brazil’s historic links to Africa are now essentially quaint.” 5 One would certainly need to modify this gross generalization by taking into account studies such as Yvonne Maggie’s “O medo do feitiço—verdades e mentiras sobre a repressão às religiões mediúnicas” [The Fear of Sorcery: Truths and Lies about the Repression of Spirit-Medium Religions] that document the ongoing repression of Afro-Brazilian religious groups as late as the early 1960s as well as the collaboration of intellectuals in denouncing to authorities African-based Brazilian religious groups that were not, in their opinion, “authentic.” 6 Furthermore, in keeping with Howard Winant’s ideas regarding racial formation theory...